I’m currently in the process of building a new off-grid house, and I often find myself wondering: What kind of house am I building, exactly? It’s too big to be a tiny house; it’s too small and boxy to be a ranch-style house; it’s too lo-fi and lacking amenities, mechanicals, etcetera… to be a modern house, though it does have some modern characteristics; and it’s too modest and simple in its architecture to be a chalet – though I think “chalet” would be a bit too pretentious, regardless.
So, what is it? Is it just a small house, or is it a cabin? In this article, we’re going to delve into what makes a cabin a cabin, as opposed to any other type of house.
In simplest terms, a cabin is just a type of house with specific characteristics, such as the size, materials, and architecture, that define its style and function. To ask, “What’s the difference between a cabin and a house?” is kind of a silly question because a cabin is a house. It’s like asking, “What’s the difference between an apple and a fruit?” Continue reading to learn more…
What Makes a Cabin a Cabin?
Now that we’ve established that a cabin is just a particular style of house, let’s talk about the characteristics that make it what it is.
Most cabins are made almost entirely, if not exclusively, out of wood – specifically logs and timber, as opposed to common framing lumber; hence the proverbial phrase, “a log cabin in the woods.” These days, however, it’s common to see cabins incorporate other materials, like milled lumber and masonry. Nevertheless, I think most would agree that a cabin is a mostly wooden structure.
Traditionally, a cabin is built on a block, stone, or permanent wood foundation – large wooden joists sat directly on, or even in, the ground. Though, modern cabins are more frequently being constructed on small slab on grade foundations. A concrete basement foundation is probably the least likely to be used for a cabin since it doesn’t quite fit the modest and simplistic nature of what a cabin is thought to be.
Cabins are typically built by the owner, whether they do it all by themself or enlist the help of friends and family. Of course, this is becoming far less common, and even impractical, considering all the modern zoning regulations and building codes that make it nearly impossible to do in most localities.
Log cabin style framing is the most common method – no different than stacking Lincoln Logs when you were a kid. Timber framing and conventional stick framing are also common methods. Regardless, the construction process is simple and straight forward. Unlike a chalet, you won’t find any fancy curves, complex angles, or elaborate and ornate details on a cabin.
Features and Amenities
Cabins don’t boast high-end features or amenities, like the kinds you would expect to find in most homes these days. For example, I wouldn’t expect a cabin to have a remote controlled mini-split, dishwasher, tankless water heater, mechanical blinds, and so on. They are typically heated with a wood stove or fireplace, and naturally cooled/ventilated via windows.
Cabins have simple layouts with few rooms. A typical floor plan might consist of a living room/kitchen, one or two bedrooms, a bathroom, possibly a front porch and/or back deck, and that’s about it. Some cabins might also have a loft for storage or sleeping.
These days, there are plenty of companies you could hire to build you a massive log “cabin,” but traditionally speaking, cabins are small buildings. On average, they are one story buildings that are less than 1,100 square feet, and they typically only house one or two people.
Cabins have a modest appearance. They do not convey wealth or opulence. The siding, both inside and out, is usually whatever the building is made out of. If it’s a log cabin, you see the structural logs that the home is made out of. If it’s board and batten, you see boards.
These materials are also conventionally left in their natural state. You may see a thin coat of stain or finishing oil on the outside, but that’s about it as far as finishes go.
This one is highly debatable, but it’s hard to imagine any house that’s in an urban or suburban neighborhood, and call it a cabin. Even if every other aforementioned box is checked, a cabin just doesn’t feel like a cabin if it’s situated in an ordinary neighborhood. Instead, cabins are thought of as small dwellings located in remote and rural settings.
So, getting back to the beginning of this post… What kind of house am I building? I think “modern cabin” is probably the best descriptor. It checks all of the boxes above, but architecturally, it looks a bit more like a modern home design.